Research to find out where yellow-eyed penguins are going

The University of Otago is researching the movements of this seasons’ hoiho chicks in the hope of understanding what’s leading to dramatically declining survival rates for the endangered species.

Little Takaraha is one well-travelled infant.

The hoiho chick has already travelled 470km – the distance between Auckland and Whanganui – since leaving the area it hatched in the Catlins earlier this year.

Takaraha is one of 23 yellow-eyed penguins being studied by University of Otago researchers, who are hoping to better understand the dramatically declining survival rates of the endangered bird.

Each of the 23 penguins involved in the study is equipped with a satellite tag, transmitting messages to overhead satellites which triangulate the penguin’s position on the ocean’s surface.

Some of the devices are able to send stored GPS positions by text message every two days.

The tags are attached to the bird’s lower back using cloth tape under a small patch of feathers, and are secured with cable ties.

The movements of the hoiho chicks is being studied as they make their first expeditions into the ocean.

Zoology PhD candidate Mel Young believes this research has been a long time coming.

She has been involved with yellow-eyed penguin conservation and research for over 13 years, and is anxiously watching this season’s cohort of chicks as they transition to independence.

“We’ve seen a large decline in the number of young birds surviving to adulthood, and as a result the number of recruits has halved over a 70-year period,” she said.

Ornithologist Lance Richdale studied yellow-eyed penguins from 1936 to 1952, recording survival of penguins up to one year of age (juveniles) at 32 percent, and subsequent recruitment to breed as adults at 26 percent.

Recent research by the University of Otago indicates a decline in both juvenile survival (to 20 percent) and recruitment to breed (to 12 percent).

“The current recruitment rate is unsustainable,” Ms Young said.

“Breeding adults need to be replaced. We need to find out which factors are shaping juvenile survival of yellow-eyed penguins at this critical life stage.”

At this stage, 15 of the 23 penguins have moved away from the areas in which they were hatched, heading north up the east coast of the South Island.

Takaraha rounded Banks Peninsula over the weekend, and the latest data showed the penguin was 10 nautical miles east of Gore Bay, in North Canterbury.

It is only in recent years that tracking technology has become small enough to allow for such study.

Grants and donations were used to buy 20 satellite tags for this season’s research, with last season’s pilot study being funded by the Conservation Services Programme, Department of Conservation.

Professor Phil Seddon of Otago’s Department of Zoology said people near the coast could play an important part in the research.

“We hope members of the public can assist us in this research by reporting any sightings of a penguin with a tracker on. It’s important that people don’t try to approach any penguins however, but rather just leave them alone and contact us,” Mr Seddon said.

University of Otago Zoology researcher Dr Thomas Mattern said the study would provide crucial data to assist in pinpointing the factors leading to early deaths in yellow-eyed penguins.

“Survival rates in the first year of a yellow-eyed penguin’s life are very low. It is vital to determine where they go during that period in order to do what we can to improve their chances.

“There is quite some urgency, as we are facing the loss of the species from the New Zealand mainland in the next few decades,” Dr Mattern said.